by Nichole Schmitt
Inspiration Farm has opened my eyes to the world of permaculture. You may have heard the terms “food forest” and “food jungle,” but a food forest is not just a scattering of seeds left to chance. It is thoughtfully planned, based on science, nature, and history. Some investment and effort are required at the beginning, but years of harvests are reaped from a single installation. Furthermore, this farming style must be adapted to the local climate and soil, and incorporates the assistance of animals, too.
Brian Kerkvliet owns and operates Inspiration Farm on East Laurel Road. Since the 1990s, he has perfected the art and science of permaculture, as it befits the Whatcom County environment. The farm grows mostly perennials with a few annual beds. The products are exotic and wild-sounding like pawpaw, seaberry, mouse melon, ground cherries, heart nuts, and persimmon. The farm also includes a thriving mushroom alcove shaded by a grove of evergreen trees.
Restaurants purchase their fruits, vegetables, tubers, nuts, and mushrooms. The general public can buy from the farm, too. By joining the buyer’s club, customers receive $110 worth of produce for $100. Email alerts notify club members about what’s in season and what can be picked up directly from the farm.
“But our main driving factor,” says Brian, “is to feed our family good food. We weren’t financially driven. It was all about growing the food and giving the best of the best to our kids and neighbors.”
He is also driven to improve the land, teach others, and use permaculture to become resilient against “climate weirdness” as he calls it. Permaculture is a melding of permanent agriculture with natural agriculture. It borrows from ancient techniques that native and ancient peoples developed throughout generations of learning and adaptation. It is based on long-term crops (perennials) that are planted once and produce food for many years.
Brian states, “This is how farms used to be. But now we’ve added some science. Instead of taking all that we can from the soil, we add to it and we build up the ecosystem. We restore more than we take.”
Science of Permaculture
The science of modern permaculture started in the 1970s with Bill Mollison and David Holmgren. According to world-permaculture.org, these two Australians started developing permaculture techniques to “produce food, fuel, fiber, medicines, and building materials” without “undermining the functional integrity of natural living systems.” Thus, permaculture is both sustainable and regenerative. To achieve this, nature is studied and copied. Patterns and relationships between species are learned and applied in these designed ecosystems.
The internet supplies plenty of information about permaculture, ranging from scholarly to commercial. Various websites list seven or nine layers in a food forest. Inspiration Farm uses the following seven: canopy, understory tree layer, shrub layer, herbaceous layer, root crops, ground cover, and vines. All plants within this ecosystem are carefully selected and paired to support each other. Each plant offers multiple benefits to its neighbors. For example, trees can be a trellis for vines while also littering the ground with mulch in the fall. Herbs can infuse flavor into other plants. Some plants fix nitrogen into the soil. Some repel pests while others attract pollinators. A collection of plants that are deliberately grown together in this supportive arrangement is called a “guild.”
The farm has evolved to this point over the course of two decades. It started out as a way to feed the Kerkvliet family, but now has become a local showcase for permaculture and a site for scholarly field trips and classes. Brian and family are able to make a living without leaving the driveway. “We love it!” he says. “It’s not work. It’s a lifestyle. We get exercise, but receive produce from it. It’s far better than a treadmill or gym membership. We love it because we are connected to the land. We keep making improvements, however, so as to do less work and get more yields.”
At first glance, a food forest may appear messy. Our idea of the perfect garden might involve straight rows and tilled soil with no weeds. But, actually, that is not natural. A patch of soil with no ground cover is either unhealthy or has been poisoned. Healthy soil, according to Brian Kerkvliet, cannot and should not be stopped from growing something in every cubic inch. To that end, he has spent two decades nourishing the soil at Inspiration Farm and he never tills and rarely weeds.
Tour of Inspiration Farm
A tour of Inspiration Farm starts with Buttercup, the fat and happy cow who lives at the highest elevation of the property. Her generous droppings provide nutrients that seep and trickle down to the rest of the farm. Starting at her pasture, there are a series of swales, channels, and little reservoirs that zigzag through the food beds. What was formerly a swampy mess is now a well-designed irrigation system. Using a little excavator, Brian Kerkvliet heaped soil into elevated berms alongside the water channels and swales that he dug.
The permaculture guilds are installed in the elevated berms. The root systems are high enough to avoid oversaturation in wet months, but close enough to the reservoirs to stay hydrated throughout summer. This renders sprinklers unnecessary and results in a healthy water table, plus the restoration of water-loving wildlife such as herons and turtles.
Kerkvliet does plant a few annual crops as well, but without tilling. Pigs are brought into the wheat patch, for example, in early spring to start fertilizing, aerating, and conquering the grass. Final touches are applied by chickens who distribute the pig droppings and scratch the soil bare of weeds. Then, wheat seeds are strewn about and covered with straw. Harvesting and processing are done with hand tools.
As climate change brings uncertainty, permaculture can help cushion the impact. This type of farming mitigates, regenerates, and provides resiliency. It produces seeds and plants that are resilient and suited to the new climate norms. Imagine a world where every community and neighborhood incorporate food production as part of its development. It should be as integral to new construction projects as are the plans for water, power, and sewage.
To spread the knowledge and benefits of permaculture, Brian and a team of renowned instructors are teaching these methods in a series of classes called a “PDC.” The hands-on Permaculture Design Certificate program runs May through June. The 72-hour course is based on the Permaculture Designer’s Manual but has been tailored to local circumstances and climate. The Permaculture Design strategy addresses all landscape profiles and climates, offering graduates a broadly applicable holistic design perspective.
Please see InspirationFarm.com to schedule a tour, become a donor, or sign up for a class.
Nichole Schmitt is a late-in-life mom and an early retiree from a technology career. Gardening and writing are her passions.